Keene High School

Despite some lingering confusion over how much federal coronavirus relief funding needs to be set aside for services for private school students, local public school leaders say they’re approaching the money as they would any other federal grant.

School districts in the Monadnock Region have received more than $2.5 million from the federal government to help defray costs related to COVID-19 and remote learning, part of the more than $37 million New Hampshire schools received through the CARES Act, which President Donald Trump signed March 27.

That money was initially delayed in getting to Granite State schools, though, due to a debate at the federal level over how much needs to be available to private school students.

The CARES Act calls for funding for “equitable services” to be accessible to private school students based on the number of low-income students who attend them in each district.

In general, federal law requires public schools to provide a portion of their federal funds for equitable services, like tutoring, for low-income private school students.

Guidance issued April 30 from the U.S. Department of Education directed that CARES Act money for equitable services would be based on the total number of non-public school students students, not just those from low-income families.

This lack of clarity prompted U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) to write a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos demanding the guidance be revised.

“This unfounded direction from your agency is a blatant attempt to redirect resources and services to wealthier private school students, in the midst of a global pandemic and in clear contradiction to the law,” Shaheen wrote in the letter dated June 10. “Additionally, the April 30 document has caused serious confusion for states and school districts as they struggle to comply with the law despite this conflicting direction from your department.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education issued a new draft rule under which the amount of money available for private school students would depend on how the public school district allocates its CARES Act money.

As the N.H. Department of Education explained the new guidance in a news release: "If districts choose to use CARES Act funds for all public school students in the district, they will also provide equitable services for all students, including non-public school students, in the district. If a district chooses to limit CARES Act funds to economically disadvantaged Title 1 eligible school students, equitable services would also, likewise, be limited to economically disadvantaged students in non-public schools."

Before the federal education department issued that further guidance, the N.H. Department of Education distributed CARES Act funding to public school districts and public charter schools earlier this month.

“We are advising them to reserve a portion of those funds for equitable services until [the U.S. Department of Education] issues final guidance, but the funds have been under the districts’ control since June 3,” state education department spokesman Grant Bosse wrote in an email last week.

That process is how the seven districts of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which covers Keene and six nearby towns, handle all federal funds, Superintendent Robert Malay said.

“Whenever we do get federal grant money, we always have that understanding that portions are available for that equitable service through federal funds,” he said. “And so, it hasn’t changed our approach to the CARES [Act] money that has come in, because in the back of our mind, we are always aware that there is a portion available for other institutions that are not in public districts.”

The same goes for the Monadnock Regional School District, said Jeremy Rathbun, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

“We don’t actually have a lot of confusion over the guidance. It’s what it typically is. Anytime we take in federal funds, we have to follow rules about equitable services,” Rathbun said Wednesday. “... We’re approaching it like we always approach all federal funds and have not found the process to be upsetting or confusing at this time.”

Rathbun added that the more private schools there are in a district, the more confusing the allocation process can be. But with only one private school, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond, in the area covered by the Monadnock Regional School District, which comprises Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, “it’s not as complicated a process to figure out how it works,” Rathbun said.

So, both Monadnock and the SAU 29 districts are moving forward with plans to spend the funds they received from the CARES Act as they plan for a fall semester that may hold a return to in-person classes, continued remote instruction or a combination of both.

SAU 29 districts received a total of $655,044 through the federal law, and their plans for the money vary a bit from district to district, Malay said.

“In some cases, we’re looking at technology enhancements that might be able to better serve our students, whether we’re fully on site or fully remote or anything in between,” he said. “... We’re looking at safety precautions that might be necessary for returning to on-site.”

The Monadnock Regional School District, which received $423,834 from the CARES Act, has similar plans for the money, Rathbun said.

“We’re looking at the need to ensure that our technology infrastructure is up to date,” he said. “We have a pretty good, solid set of Chromebooks, but we gave a lot of them out during remote learning. We want to make sure that we have the funds to repair them as they come back in, so they can go back out if they need to, if we have to go into remote learning again.”

Depending on guidance from the state, Monadnock also might use a portion of the CARES Act funding to procure personal protective equipment for students and staff.

This article has been updated to include the new draft rule that the U.S. Department of Education issued Thursday, after this article was first published.

This article has been updated to correct the description of equitable services. Public school districts provide those services for eligible non-public school students. The funds do not go directly to private schools.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.